Over the course of a prolific seven-decade-long career, Beverly Pepper, who died in February 2020, proved herself a virtuoso of three-dimensionality, regardless of material. Marlborough’s recent “concise investigation” covering 50 years’ worth of Pepper’s work (from 1968 to 2018) offered everything from Cor-ten steel to green onyx, from oxidized copper to polished chrome. In practically everything she touched, Pepper demonstrated an ability to lend presence to cold substance—sometimes by instilling motion and energy and sometimes by doing just the opposite.
The exhibition understandably lacked the monumentality for which Pepper is best known, though Helena, a sweeping double curve in Cor-ten steel from 2018, approaches it. Even the cavernous galleries of Chelsea cannot accommodate the punch packed by her public sculpture. (Marlborough, which has represented Pepper since the 1960s, dedicated an exhibition to her large-scale Cor-ten works last year, complete with astroturf to simulate the outdoors.) Instead, the impact was concentrated into a semi-spiritual simplicity, dominated by totems and pillars. The second room, full of bronze spires, felt like an ancient petrified forest, or a gallery of weaponry pulled from the Metropolitan and re-planted downtown. Many of these works are named for towns in Italy (such as Todi Marker and Terni Marker II); one can imagine them standing stark in the Umbrian countryside––where Pepper found an adopted home––marking the city limits.
Casting these works in the role of monuments, whose purpose is to draw attention to something else, larger in significance, is perhaps an apt approach to other works, such as the small tabletop rock pieces that seem to be grave markers or portals to a world lurking just behind our own. Titles like Chthonic Prelude, which alludes to the underworld, and Curved Visions are a far cry from the flat-footed, descriptive names of the 1970s, like those of the nearby Black Triangle and Untitled Stainless Steel. One tabletop work, Grey Silence (2009), is made from porphyry, a stone precious to Byzantium and a designation of its royalty. Its rough back gives way to a smoothly polished front of geometric folds, like the holy robes of Christ seen so often in basilica mosaics. These stones, however, were the least successful works in a show full of successes; they often felt like maquettes of much larger sculptures and lacked the dynamism of Pepper’s Cor-ten works, the delicate balance of the jagged stainless steel planes, or the staidness of the iron javelins.
After seeing Pepper’s oeuvre all in one place, it becomes all the more absurd that she is not an icon. That her Cor-ten sculptures, which she produced since 1964, have not enjoyed the same reception as those of her contemporary Richard Serra, for example, is disappointing at best (though expected), an egregious omission in the history of art at worst. And yet, I might argue a different position entirely. While the Guerrilla Girls’ tongue- in-cheek Advantages of Being a Woman Artist (1988) facetiously celebrates the second-class position female artists have been put in, there is one serious advantage to the predicament of being an artist while also being female—being free of the pressure to adhere to a single style or motif that a more celebrated male peer might feel, thinking critics (and the market) would object to change. (See the aforementioned Serra.) What results is a much broader artistic exploration and a feeling of expansiveness. Why Pepper worked so widely and so experimentally is irrelevant, however. What is clear is that she has left behind a body of work that will act as a monument to a woman of considerable genius, a marker of something bigger.